Teach for America expects to be the No. 1 employer of 2007 graduates at Bates, Colby, Amherst, and Williams, but not at Bowdoin. While Bowdoin's size and student body resemble those of these four NESCAC schools, it produces fewer applications to the program. At this year's final deadline on February 18, Teach for America had received 24 Bowdoin applications—about half as many as it received from Williams and Amherst.
Teach for America (TFA) is a highly competitive program that recruits college seniors to become teachers at schools in low-income urban and rural communities. Accepted graduates enroll in a six-week summer training program and commit the next two years to teaching.
As TFA continues to grow, there is no clear reason why the number of Bowdoin applications has remained relatively constant for at least five years. Though Bowdoin continues to produce about 20 applications each year, not everyone here supports the program.
Proponents see it as an excellent means to improve education in high- poverty schools, others believe it is horribly inadequate when compared to teacher certification programs like Bowdoin's, and some people even question the motives of students who apply.
Senior Anthony Carrasquillo, a chemistry and environmental studies major with no education coursework, applied for TFA because he said he knows how easy it is to be turned off from science, and he thinks he could help students learn to enjoy it.
"I have the capability to get in there and make a difference, I guess it would be selfish of me not to," he said.
Carrasquillo pointed out that it is only a two-year commitment, and he said he was convinced to apply by Edward Smith, the recruitment director for TFA.
"He really sold it to me," said Carrasquillo.
Although Carrasquillo is motivated by his ability to help students, some argue that applicants do not have a full grasp of TFA's effect in schools.
"I don't question their motives, necessarily, because they might not understand the complexity of the situation," Sam Kamin '08 said.
Kamin, a teaching minor, completed a research project for an education course in the fall semester in which he explored alternatives to TFA that would put a bigger emphasis on teacher education.
"[TFA] treats teaching as if the only qualification is being smart and motivated, which is incredibly detrimental in the classroom," Kamin said.
Many professors of education tend to share Kamin's belief that without extensive teacher education, teachers can actually have a negative impact on their students.
"These are very needy schools—very needy students—and they need somebody with an enormous amount of training," said Mary Lu Gallaudet, adjunct education lecturer and acting chair of the department.
While Gallaudet believes that it is "a lofty and worthy goal to help students," she does not even recommend that students who complete the teacher certification program at Bowdoin begin their teaching careers in such challenging environments.
"It takes several years to get good at this," she said.
Gallaudet believes that when insufficiently prepared teachers enter a classroom, they run the risk of disserving their students, as well as burning out of a profession that they might otherwise stick with.
Assistant Professor of Education Doris Santoro Gomez echoes Gallaudet's concerns about TFA's potential to do more harm than good.
"What concerns me is that the students really lose out," she said.
Santoro Gomez does not see teacher recruitment as a big problem in the U.S. school system. In fact, she said that there are plenty of teachers in the United Sates, but they are disproportionately distributed in middle-class and wealthy schools.
"The problem is also teacher retention, to which TFA does nothing to remedy, and it actually exacerbates it," she said. "TFA is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound."
With regard to teacher retention, Gallaudet is also concerned that the two-year commitment that TFA requires of its corps members is too short.
"People blow in and out of these children's lives," she said.
Santoro Gomez explained that studies have shown that teachers who do not receive sufficient teacher education tend to teach their students in the same way they were taught. In TFA's case, she said that many of the teachers come from elite and privileged backgrounds, and learning in school comes relatively easy to them. Unlike TFA's summer institution, she said teacher certification programs give instruction on teaching beyond a teacher's own experience.
TFA recruiter Smith disagrees. He argues that the summer institution is specifically tailored to prepare teachers to instruct in high-poverty schools.
"You can't undervalue teacher certification programs like Bowdoin's, but there are other ways to be successful in the classroom," Smith said.
He contended when he was a TFA corps member, he felt very prepared upon entering his eighth grade English classroom in the Mississippi Delta. Further, he championed TFA for its potential long-term effect on education. He said that regardless of whether corps members stay in education, "alumni are focused on systematic changes to education."
Sarah Thomas '06, a TFA corps member in the Bronx, described her teaching experience thus far as "the most intense situation [she's] ever been in," and she said that teaching in such a difficult environment is "kind of a sink-or-swim situation."
Although she only described herself as feeling "somewhat prepared" when she entered the classroom last fall, she believes that TFA provides great resources, including continued support from mentors.
Thomas does not intend to stay in teaching permanently; instead, she plans to go to law school and eventually work in education policy.
"Having been in the trenches, I'm able to see the flaws in the system," she said.
This idea that a TFA alum would use her experiences to change education from the top down characterizes the long-term goal of the program.
Santoro Gomez offered a different approach for prospective TFA applicants to ameliorate education in high-poverty schools.
"What would really be revolutionary would be if those people pledged to send their children to [high-poverty] schools, because as long as the United States has a persistent underclass that continues to be disserved in the way it is now, no amount of compassion will make schools more equitable," she said.
Bowdoin's education department is not alone in its skepticism of TFA's ability to make a positive impact on schools in low-income communities. In fact, at its annual meeting in October 2006, the Consortium for Excellence in Teacher Education (CETE) discussed ways to counter the actions of TFA and similar programs. CETE is comprised of more than 15 top colleges and universities in the Northeast that have relatively small teacher education programs.
Vicki Bartolini, the CETE coordinator for 2006-2007 and associate professor of education at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, said that the organization respects the individual students who are interested in TFA, but does not support the program as a whole.
Bartolini explained that asking a student without extensive teacher education to teach would be like asking a student without training in medicine to be a doctor for a year.
Although Bartolini said that CETE would not take any actions specifically against TFA, it has a subcommittee that plans to submit op-eds, which highlight the importance of quality teacher education, to a number of newspapers.
College students have been exposed to teachers for most of their lives, and Bartolini believes this familiarity with the profession causes students to think anyone can do the job.
"It's like seeing a conductor of a symphony—it looks really easy when you hear all that beautiful music," she said.
But for Thomas, when she is teaching eighth-grade social studies in the Bronx, no amount of teacher education would be sufficient without a willingness to dig deep within herself and push through difficult situations.
"In the end, it doesn't matter if you've had the formal education or not," Thomas said. "In the end, it's about challenging yourself."